THERE’S AN ARCHIVIST FOR THAT! INTERVIEW WITH ANNETTE LA RUE FROM ELECTROMAGNETIC TATTOO AND ADAM JEFFERY FROM THE BALTIMORE TATTOO MUSEUM BY ALLISON TERMINE

This is the newest post in our There’s an Archivist for That! series, which features examples of archivists working in places you might not expect. Allison Termine, brings you an interview with Adam Jeffery, the Tattooer, Collector of The Baltimore Tattoo Museum (est. 1999) and Annette La Rue, Tattooer, Collector from Electromagnetic Tattoo in Chesapeake, Virginia.

Interviewer: Allison Termine, I’m a trained Librarian, Archivist and Collections Manager, learning Taxonomy and Ontology. Capturing the essence of nostalgia in my life has always led me to activities, professional and personal, where I had the opportunity to observe, record, preserve, display, learn and organize primary and secondary material of history.

Image by Annette La Rue of Paul Rogers.

INTRODUCTION

The pioneering style in the trade of tattooing is called Americana. Knowledge of this trade was passed down orally by August “Cap” Coleman, 1884-1973 and Franklin Paul Rogers, 1905-1990, the for-father’s, what remains is tattoo ephemera and an oral tradition that lives on today through those they taught. Important historical artifacts of modern electric tattooing exist in various collections who are archivists in their own right. It is a treat to interview two artists and collectors of the Tattoo Trade to learn of a niche subculture through its remnants / ephemera. Just like other collected historical archives, provenance of the Tattoo Trade is based on oral dissemination and the now primary objects that were used to apply the final product were secondary to them and therefore have become a nostalgic link to the past. Such object items are; the tattoo machines, drawings on fragile tracing paper, business cards, pictures, adapted furniture for the tattoo sitting, banners, and flash to name a few. These accidental archivists, interviewed are artists and collectors and are what I consider boots on the ground archivists. A term that describes the importance of gathering material in the present time, which they have done throughout their career in the Tattoo Trade.

*To discover an in depth history of the origins of Americana Tattooing visit:
http://www.tattooarchive.com/index.php and
https://selvedgeyard.com/2009/07/21/forefathers-of-american-tattooing/.

Image by Annette La Rue. Pictured is a Paul Rogers original tracing paper flash from “Sailor Eddies” Shop in Camden, New Jersey 1971. With additional acetate stencil rubbing of a “Cap” Colemans’ drawing reworked by Sailor Jerry.

Our first interview is with Annette La Rue of Electromagnetic Tattoo, Chesapeake Virginia. Find her shop owned by her and her husband Steve Tiberi, also a tattooer and collector on Instagram @electromagnetictattoo, @annettlelarulex, and @tiberitattoo.

Image by Allison Termine. Annette La Rue and I doing conservation work, on a banner made by her friend, Ernie “Ernie the hat” Gosnell, of her former tattoo shop in New Orleans, Louisiana. Electric LadyLand.

Q: As a Tattooer of 30 years can you tell me about the history of Americana Tattooing?

Americana style tattooing means a bold colorful style consisting of bold thick outlines, solid black shading and bright solid colors. Americana tattooing was popular among sailors and circuses at the turn of the century. Most tattooers traveled with the circus or went to busy Navy port towns. It was seedy and frowned upon to have ink on your skin until the late 90’s into the 2000’s.

Image by Allison Termine. The Electric LadyLand banner made by, Ernie “Ernie the hat” Gosnell, of Annette La Rue’s former tattoo shop in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Q: As a collector of your trade what drove you to save ephemera of the tattoo trade throughout your career? (Your perspective then and now).

I was fascinated with older tools and designs because they connected me to the old ways. Kind of like a bridge to the heroes of yesterday. I felt a little “magic” in those tools. It made me feel like I had a link to the past and it made me proud to have possession of the tools of the trade. Now it’s just more stuff and I’m selling and trading my collection for things I can actually use. I want the younger tattooers to have those objects so they can feel like I did. To own historical tattoo pieces is like instant “cred” for anyone who has it. If you have money, you can be a collector. When I was buying you had to track someone down, go to their shop or house and beg them to sell you things. Now it’s on ebay and craigslist, too easy to get.

Q: Can you tell me about the significance of early tattoo machines and how the knowledge of building them was passed on and evolved through the years?

At the time there was no significance to old tattoo machines; they were simply a tool to make money. Tattooers would travel and visit each other and learn different ways to build machines. Most machine builders have their own style or frame configuration. They would mail parts and write about the secret trick they had to make to make their machines better. There was a lot of friendly competition between tattooers. Some builders got famous and some were more obscure. Machines from the old times are very valuable today. When the old guys died a lot of families were embarrassed about the line of work and tons were thrown out, leaving a few for younger tattooers to scourge to find them. Good builders would invite younger ones to come build and learn. You could spend the day or a few weeks with a builder and get secrets and tips while making your machine. A smart person would go to everyone’s house they could and did blend all the knowledge and make it on his or her own. This is significant because the younger generation needed to know the tips of the trade in order to keep machines up and running and it also helped the young guys to progress using old ways.

Q: If the collected ephemera of Americana Tattooing is the result of a trade learned orally, could you tell us about how the forefathers of Americana Tattooing influenced this particular style that remains “timeless” and how it has lasting power today over all other styles of tattooing being applied to skin?

I believe Americana style remains timeless because the designs were timeless. From the 1800’s to the late 1990’s an eagle looked like an eagle. A rose was a rose. You could tell what it was in two seconds. That is what makes it timeless. Today’s tattoos are trendy and you can tell if someone got it in their 90’s or early 2000 or 2010 or 2020 because of the design. They may seem more personal now but they aren’t. People get the same bad trendy design over and over, thinking they are “custom” and they don’t realise we tattooed that same design 40 times that month. Most timeless designs can be changed with different colors or leaves or background etc. Modern designs have not much room to change, as customers want it to look the same.

Image and caption by Annette La Rue. Pictured is a “Cap” Coleman original flash with signature and date, 1948. The significance of owning this sheet of flash is that 72 years ago “Cap” Coleman was in the next town over applying these very designs. This is my favorite piece in my collection and probably priceless.

Q: What is your favorite part of knowing you are an accidental archivist?

My favorite part of knowing I’m an accidental archivist is just knowing I can make young tattooers as excited and happy as I was when I started collecting. Of course these items all increase in value every year. It is the younger Tattooers having interest in keeping this history alive that I find interesting.

Our next interview is with Adam Jeffrey of The Baltimore Tattoo Museum. You can find Adam on Instagram @adamjeffreytattooer, and @thebaltimoretattomuseum.

Q: What are the types or formats of tattoo ephemera that were saved and what makes them significant? For example; how did a single piece of torn tracing paper with a pencil drawing become deemed “to save”, or a business card from Paul Rogers.

At The Baltimore Tattoo Museum we hope to explore the history and artifacts of modern tattooing in the Americana style. When it comes to the types of ephemera we collect that makes them significant are varied. For example, from some artists the art itself was secondary to their abilities to apply tattoos or build and tune tattoo equipment. So there are varying reasons we try to collect the many things we have. Some are significant to the tattooers of our area and the designs of a given town, for example, shipping and navy type tattoos in Baltimore, as it is a major east coast port. In other cases it might be the little inventions they crafted to make their everyday tasks a little easier like, retrofitting an old dental type chair to create better access to an area of skin to be tattooed. In other cases it’s their amazing ability, these untrained artists had to create very well drawn and thought out lasting style designs that even years later folks still would like to have applied to their skin.

Image and caption by Adam Jeffrey from The Baltimore Tattoo Museum. Pictures is a rubbing of an acetate stencil made by Paul Rogers and sent in the mail to Ernie Carafa to share the design to make money. Back then, designs were common and people liked them that way. Uniformity with subtle differences to make it each artist’s own with various colors or background elements.

Q: If the collected ephemera of Americana Tattooing is the result of a trade learned orally, could you tell us about how the forefathers of Americana Tattooing influenced this particular style that remains “timeless” and how it has lasting power today over all other styles of tattooing being applied to skin?

Like us at Baltimore Tattoo and Museum and the majority of tattooers, still apply tattoos with the same electromagnet style tattoo machine they’ve always used. There are even modern makers making the same style frames that were being made in the turn of the century. As well as the same hand motions and application styles that were handed down to get the pigment under the skin, to have a good outcome to the tattoo once it’s healed. Also, the way the machinery is set up and tuned, to make precise lines and shading etc.

Image and caption by Adam Jeffery from The Baltimore Tattoo Museum. Pictured is a Joe Farrar machine built for Johnny Walker who tattooed with “Cap” Coleman of Norfolk, Virginia, and Sailor Jerry Collins in Honolulu, Hawaii. The machine is a Percy Waters model #7 from the 1940’s-1950’s era, that Farrar rebuilt to serve as a shader. Pictured in the right-hand corner is Joe’s tattooing and business card from their DC location.

Q: Can you tell us of one of your favorite collections?

I personally love our collection of Paul Rogers tattoo machines acetate stencils and flash. Most of it came from the collection of Charley and Sandy Parsons who are two of my mentors and were close friends with Paul who tattooed from the late 1920s till the late 1980s. Paul was an innovator and all around crafty artist making his own equipment, mixing his own colors and a designer of tattoos. The total package and to boot a good person as I am told.

Image and caption by Adam Jeffery from The Baltimore Tattoo Museum. Displayed are Paul Rogers machines, acetate stencils made by Paul and a photo of a tattoo he did.

Q: What are some challenges unique to the collections?

The largest challenge is that prior to the 2000s Tattoo memorabilia was just old stuff or junk so a lot of it was thrown away or lost to time as tattooing was nowhere near as common as it is currently. So honestly, there isn’t as much of it to be had as one might think as well the prior you get it thru can be hard to deal with as it has become more popular. Prices have gone up and you are getting it second and third hand now so the provenance of it isn’t easy to establish.

Q: What is your favorite part of knowing you are an accidental archivist?

My favorite part of being an accidental archivist is interacting with other collectors who have been collecting for a long time, their knowledge helps me place dates and times on artists, machines and flash that I’ve had questions about. It can be an awesome community.

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